Updated November 28, 2020
You’re about to see what happens when a pet species isn’t big business.
That doesn’t stop us though. All rabbits that live to old age have some degree of arthritis. In my experience, they all do better on treatment.
Old age, by the way, is over ten years. Most rabbits don’t live that long due to a combination of poor housing and poor diet. However, if you look after your rabbit properly it’s totally normal to reach these lifespans.
Symptoms of Arthritis in Rabbits
Despite the pain, signs are usually vague and can be just one of the following:
- Reduced jumping height or ability
- Reluctance to use stairs
- More time spent resting
- Objection to handling
- Changes in litter box use
- Reduced activity
- Changes in resting areas
- A poorly groomed coat
- Posture change
- Faeces stuck to the bottom, or flystrike
- Bumblefoot or sore hocks
- Weakness in the hind legs: read other causes of back leg problems in rabbits here.
I find that most good rabbit owners will bring it to my attention, not the other way around. Look at the rabbit pictured above for example. You can see:
- faecal staining around the rear caused by not sitting properly to poop
- the pink colour of a sore hock caused by prolonged pressure
- an abnormal posture
Treatment of Rabbit Arthritis
So let’s get these rabbits feeling and moving better.
Before talking about medication, it’s important to not forget lifestyle changes. Food and water need to be put in easily reached places. Litter boxes need shallow sides so that it isn’t painful to get in or out. Sometimes slippery floors need carpet runners to add grip.
Nails will need trimming more often and hard to reach areas of the coat may need brushing to prevent matting.
Weight loss is incredibly important for arthritic cats and dogs but less so for rabbits. That’s because the diet that encourages a long life is also the one that has been shown to promote a healthy weight.
Most old rabbits I see are not fat at all, but if they were, I would recommend following our rabbit feeding advice.
The most important arthritis drug for rabbits is meloxicam. It is a very effective anti-inflammatory and should make an obvious difference for rabbits in pain. It’s also very easy to give as it comes as a palatable liquid.
A word of warming, though: the effective dose of meloxicam for rabbits is thought to be 1mg/kg, which is ten times the dog dose. If you are giving a lower dose, you might reject meloxicam as being useless without giving it a chance to help.
I and many other rabbit vets use meloxicam daily without seeing adverse effects. I have also had many elderly patients on meloxicam for many years without seeing a problem. For greatest efficacy it’s probably best given in the morning as rabbits may metabolise the drug quite quickly.
Tramadol & Gabapentin
I have also used tramadol in a handful of rabbits. I reserve it for cases when meloxicam alone is no longer enough. It appears to give improvement, but it’s hard to tell. The latest thinking is to try another drug called gabapentin instead. I have yet to try this personally but I don’t expect miracles.
It’s very important for rabbit owners to understand that if they choose to use meloxicam, gabapentin or tramadol, they do so at their own risk. Although these drugs appear to work well, they are untested and we cannot guarantee their safety or even predict what might go wrong.
I do not believe there is enough evidence to recommend any other treatments. I hope I have given you enough to help your rabbit and would welcome your thoughts.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.